Eleven years on, the A-League unfairly remains the Australian media’s punching bag

The great Johnny Warren once said of the Australian football community: “We were only second-class citizens … wogs, sheilas and poofters.”

In those days, it was difficult for lovers of the beautiful game to freely express such a passion without being labelled one of the aforementioned slurs in a country where the sport was practically invisible, dominated by egg-shaped pigskins.

Since Warren’s passing in 2004, Australian football has come along in leaps and bounds with a plethora of landmark acheivements and growth, both on and off the field, just as the Order of Australia recipient predicted.

The Socceroos have competed in three straight World Cups and hosted and won the 2015 Asian Cup. Australia’s club football scene has grown significantly with the introduction of the FFA Cup and the Western Sydney Wanderers spectacularly defied all the odds last season to become the first ever Australian club to win the Asian Champions League.

The A-League has blossomed from the ashes of the old National Soccer League (NSL) since its inception in 2005. Yet it seems the 11-year-old competition still has a way to go in terms of winning over the hearts and minds of some portions of the Australian public, none more so than the Australian media, in whose eyes, it seems, the A-League is very much a second-class citizen.

If there is one thing almost as certain as death and taxes in the life of the Australian football fan, it is the probability of bad press and ‘code wars’ at least once a season.

Season 11 has been no different despite being in its infancy. An article was published by the Herald Sun a day before Western Sydney Wanderers and Brisbane Roar opened the new season, reporting that sniffer dogs would be used at Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City matches in an attempt to catch out flare smugglers. As expected, the piece was met with displeasure by football fans on social media.

Interestingly, the story surfaced even when no A-League matches were played in Melbourne on matchday one: two took place in Sydney and one each in Adelaide, Gosford and Wellington.

Following 17 October’s Melbourne Derby, which Victory claimed 3–2 after a quickfire City comeback, various media outlets chose to lead with a nine-year-old boy being hit by a plastic bottle (everyone can agree, an unfortunate accident) along with the ignition of a handful of flares and 10 evictions (but no arrests) amongst a crowd of 40,000, rather than the contents of the epic that transpired over 90 minutes on the pitch.

In the days after the match, media personalities Andy Maher and Adam Peacock labelled the coverage as “unfair” and “irresponsible” on Melbourne radio station SEN 1116.

Similarly, the fans’ reactions to the pieces were representative of a growing dissatisfaction with the way in which the league is being covered. Nearly 53% of A-League fans surveyed via Twitter a week into the season said they were unhappy with mainstream media’s handling of the league, with a similar percentage of fans attributing the problem to the notion of ‘soccer hooligans’.

An ‘anti-soccer’ agenda is hardly a phantom imagined by football fans. Outside90 Managing Editor Adrian Houghton says agendas against the code in mainstream media are no extravagant conspiracy theory.

“I think everyone’s a sheep in this country,” Houghton said.

“They like to read sensational headlines … there’s an agenda at the top. It’s clear that the bigger codes are given a better run, they’re viewed more favourably by some of the bigger publications.

It is disappointing to see, when an issue happens with perhaps active support — the Western Sydney Wanderers and the RBB (Red and Black Bloc) for example — maybe someone’s throwing a few flares and it’s almost inevitable, we know the next day there’s going to be some bad press and they’re going to sink the boot in.”

For the A-League’s active fans, it is almost a case of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’. Without the noise created by active support, the league’s biggest and most unique drawcard, atmosphere, becomes obsolete and would likely deal a huge blow to the bottom line. Yet when the terraces are in full voice, on their feet as one, hooliganism headlines can be only a turn of a page away after even the smallest of indiscretions.

Houghton agreed that the idea of hooliganism is an undertone of mainstream media’s A-League reporting, blasting it as “pathetic”.

“It’s not a conspiracy, it’s clear for all to see, there’s an agenda against soccer. It probably just comes back to ‘hooliganism’ which is a term that gets thrown around.

“Cultural-wise, yes, people view soccer as a sport still supported by mugs … there’s the undertones of soccer being a really woggy and violent sport still.

I just think it’s absolutely pathetic that people would view it in that way.”

Without question, the A-League has a long way to go yet in striving to become Australia’s most followed league and to develop a stature that scores goals with big media companies and wins over the wider public.

There remains work to be done in advertising. Football Federation Australia (FFA) is commonly criticised by football fans for its weak marketing and with good reason. Total memberships (92,701) are down on this time last year and round one attendances were the second-lowest in the league’s history on average at just 12,916.

By the same token, the league and the FFA are lagging significantly behind the AFL, to use just one example, in terms of TV rights — understandably to an extent given the age and size of the two. The A-League’s current TV deal with Fox Sports and SBS generates only $40 million a year versus the AFL’s $2.508 billion across six years — the gaping chasm will not be helped by SBS’ decision to broadcast its weekly Friday night fixture on its secondary channel, SBS2.

Even with agendas prevalent, the A-League cannot deny it has some issues in the stands. The flares are there, they are illegal, they need to go. But to paint the entire A-League fan base with the same brush based on a small minority of troublemakers as rioting, violent hooligans is not only unjust but untrue. Only 7% of fans said they regularly or always encountered some form of ant-social behavior at an A-League match.

Do not let the bold-lettered headlines and hyperbole fool you. The A-League is a sporting experience that is unrivalled in Australia — challenging the nation’s sporting heirarchy is just one thing that makes supporting the fledgling league so enjoyable. There’s no tabloid nor TV screen big enough to stop the round ball rolling on.

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